On classroom authority, with special reference to instruction in policy analysis

What authority may I legitimately claim, standing at the head of a classroom with a piece of chalk in my hand, when I teach a course on the methods of policy analysis? One possible answer: the authority to say what counts as a valid argument within that specific discipline of thought.

Mike O’Hare’s essay on the different versions of “authority” created by legitimately held power on the one hand and by knowledge on the other quotes Mark Moore’s undying question to teachers, “By what right do you hold the chalk?” Perhaps that question should be addressed explicitly in the classroom more often than it is, with the instructor making it clear what authority is claimed, and on what basis.

When I teach methods of policy analysis, I start out by quoting the great definition of the term “course” from the Harvard catalogue: “A course is a group of people studying a subject with someone who has studied it before.”  Note, I say, not with “someone who is the world’s ultimate authority on that subject,” or “someone with infallible knowledge of the subject”, but merely “someone who has studied it before.” I then explain that I studied it so much my teachers finally gave me a doctorate to make me stop.  Then comes the hard part.

Policy analysis is about determining which course of action better serves the public interest in some set of circumstances. But of course that is also the subject-matter of actual political contestation, and policy analysts cannot legitimately claim that their opinions – inevitably conditioned by their prejudices, their interests, and the limitations of their knowledge and experience as well as by their analytic skill – ought to become the rule of action in a democracy. That would be true even if – per impossibile – the policy-analytic tradition embraced all of the possibly valid forms of argument about what should be done. It follows that I would be going beyond my rights if I required students to agree, or pretend to agree, with my actual opinions about inequality or pollution control or even crime control.

But – I say to the class – policy analysis is a discipline of thought, the product of a tradition. As the person in the room who has studied that discipline before, I claim the authority to say what, within that tradition, constitutes or does not constitute a valid argument.  Two policy analysts discussing crime may not come to the same conclusion about the optimal level of incarceration, but they will discuss the question in the same way – using, for example, terms such as “optimal” – and that way will be different from the way in which two criminologists or two cultural critics would discuss it. My job, standing there with a piece of chalk in my hand, is to show the students what it would mean to contribute to that policy-analytic conversation.




Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

9 thoughts on “On classroom authority, with special reference to instruction in policy analysis”

    1. For these purposes, a “policy” is the way an organization (for example, a government agency) chooses to deal with some situation or class of situations. “Policy analysis” evaluates those choices according to their advantages and disadvantages from the viewpoint of the public interest.

    2. way back when I was re-entering higher ed., I took an intro to govmt. class at the local community college. My prof (actually a retired NJ prosecutor) told us that a good shorthand was, when regarding agendas, intended directions, etc., was to think as policy as the “what” and politics as the “how.” It’s stuck with me for close to a decade now.

      Also: see Bruce Reed on “wonks” versus “hacks.”

  1. Fresh out of Mark’s intro policy analysis class, during a job interview I was asked how I would think about evaluating a proposal to mandate low-flow toilets. I bumbled my way through some half-assed thoughts. The manager paused, and then said, “OK, you think like us.”

  2. People hold the chalk in K-12 classes and junior/community colleges as well as graduate courses at elite universities, the last of which have students (usually) eager to hone their skills. “Authority” has different meanings at each of these levels.

  3. My freshman humanities professor at UCSD back in the early 1980s told us that as 18-year-olds we didn’t know which books to read and needed him and his colleagues to tell us. I admired his chutzpah. I think some of my compatriots were insulted.

    1. It is certainly worth tens of thousands of dollars in tuition to have a professor tell you what books to read. Come to think of it, it’s probably just as worth all that money as is learning technical math, computer, or scientific skills from trained faculty. After graduation, the skills acquired from both are equally marketable… aren’t they?

      This is ridiculous of course, and it is my personal problem with many liberal arts degrees. Note that I said “degrees,” not “disciplines.” A political science major who graduates and then decides that learning high-level math would be beneficial has a lot further to go than an engineering major who graduates and then decides to learn political science. The former must learn the language of numbers and how to reason through equations while the latter simply has to read some books. And how would one ever go about figuring out what books to read in this information-deprived day in age? Lord help him.

  4. “what it would mean to contribute to that policy-analytic conversation” is therefore to be distinguished from “how to score points in an argument” or “what it takes to defeat an opponent by making him wrong.”

  5. Mark, I think that this post serves as an admirable summary of Bourdieu’s theory of “habitus” and “field.” The difference is that he’s (basically) against what you’re (basically) for: he agrees that this is where cultural authority comes from but he wishes there were less of it.

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